We don’t have to wait long for the drama to emerge in Class 1A nine-man.
In fact, we don’t even have to wait past the season opener.
The 2022 season starts with a rare sight — the top two teams in the preseason playing in the season opener.
Shoshoni, my preseason No. 1, and Pine Bluffs, my preseason No. 2, will play in Week 1 in Fremont County. This game will settle some debates about weekly rankings for the entire season.
But the thing is, by the time everything is said and done, it will mean bupkis. And that’s because Shoshoni and Pine Bluffs aren’t the only teams capable of winning the championship in a year as top-heavy as an F-150 with a refrigerator strapped to the top of the cab.
Class 1A nine-man’s offensive player of the year, defensive player of the year, lineman of the year and specialist of the year were all underclassmen. Of the 36 all-state selections, 24 return. And 20 of those are on the four clear title contenders — Shoshoni, Pine Bluffs, Rocky Mountain and Wind River.
Four questions to answer
Is this going to be the best year of nine-man yet? Absolutely. When the four teams from the previous year’s semifinals combine to return 20 all-state players, you know some things are about to go down. That’s what we have with Shoshoni, Rocky Mountain, Pine Bluffs and Wind River — four teams who, in any other year, might be alone as the odds-on favorites. In 2022, they all have to contend with one another.
What about the other 12 teams? Competitive, but also-rans. Lingle will be significantly improved, Big Piney will be a challenging addition to the West, and Saratoga, Greybull, Lusk and Riverside will all be capable of giving the top teams a tussle. But nine-man will be stratified entering the year, with clear divisions between the top teams and the outsiders.
So who’s gonna take it all? *shrug emoji*. Shoshoni got a lot of love in the preseason as the defending champions, but Rocky Mountain returns a ton of players (both from injury and just in general) and Pine Bluffs has top-tier individual talent that’s harnessed well in a team concept. And Wind River is capable of beating them all. So, like I said…
Is nine-man really this top-heavy, and are the top teams really this even? Yep. Every single game among those top four will be must-see football, and if one of the other 12 programs can pull an upset or two to make it a five- or six-team race, watch out.
Preseason class MVP
Stu Lerwick, Pine Bluffs. No one in the classification is anywhere close to matching Lerwick’s aerial production. Last year, he completed 134 of 211 passes (63.5% completion) for 2,215 yards and 23 touchdowns against only three interceptions — this after throwing for 1,857 yards as a sophomore. The Hornets are loaded with star players around him, so watch for similar success this season.
Preseason class breakout player
Wyatt Campbell, Southeast. How many linemen can turn in a top-three finish in the 100-meter dash? Campbell can — and he’s moving from the line to the backfield because of it. The Cyclones’ new fullback will be part of a Southeast attack that’s refocusing its efforts on speed, with Campbell right in the middle of it all on both offense and on defense as a middle linebacker.
Other players to watch
Pehton Truempler and Alex Mills, Shoshoni. Mills is the returning Class 1A nine-man defensive player of the year, intercepting 11 passes, best in nine-man, and scoring two defensive touchdowns. And on offense, he leads the Wranglers’ offense under center, throwing for 1,181 yards and 20 touchdowns last season. But Truempler tied for the team lead with 100 tackles and, oh by the way, ran for 1,521 yards and 21 touchdowns on his way to Casper Star-Tribune Super 25 first team status. That’s a heck of a duo to try to stop — and they’ve got support.
Nate Minemyer, Rocky Mountain. Named by the coaches as the classification’s top lineman last season, Minemyer made a name for himself on both sides of the ball. He was particularly problematic on defense, where he ran up 74 total tackles but made a bunch of big plays — eight tackles for loss, four sacks, three fumble recoveries and three blocked kicks.
Jaycee Herbert, Wind River. Class 1A nine-man’s top specialist last year, Herbert was equally impactful on offense and defense, too. He led the Cougars with 92 tackles and had a team-high 14 tackles for loss. He also led the team in scoring (13 touchdowns) and in all-purpose offense, with 870 rushing yards, a team-high 117 receiving yards and an average of 21.3 yards per kick return.
Ryan Fornstrom, Pine Bluffs. Somehow, people tend to forget that Fornstrom was a first-team Casper Star-Tribune Super 25 selection last year, along with his teammate Lerwick, and that it’s unheard of not only for a nine-man team to have two Super 25 players, but have them both back. Fornstrom led the Hornets in defensive points and led all of nine-man in catches (38) and receiving yards (647).
Four key games
Pine Bluffs at Shoshoni, Sept. 1. Shoshoni’s only loss in last year’s title run was to the Hornets. While the championship rematch the Hornets sought never materialized, this Week 1 showdown will give a good early indication of who’s the favorite in 2022.
Lingle at Lusk, Sept. 9. Lingle just might be the most improved team in 1A nine-man this year, and the Doggers’ hopes for a breakout season may just rest on their East Conference opener. The Tigers present a big challenge in that scenario, but isn’t that the point for a team trying to prove it belongs?
Rocky Mountain at Shoshoni, Sept. 23. This game has significant intrigue not only for the West Conference race but for the entire season, as the Wranglers and Grizzlies reprise their rivalry as well as last year’s state championship game.
Rocky Mountain at Wind River, Oct. 20. Don’t forget about the Cougars — they’re locked and loaded for another deep playoff run. This regular-season finale against the Grizzlies might just be a surprise in waiting.
Predicted order of finish
East Conference: Pine Bluffs; Lingle; Saratoga; Lusk; Wright; Southeast; Guernsey; Moorcroft.
West Conference: Shoshoni; Rocky Mountain; Wind River; Greybull; Big Piney; Riverside; St. Stephens; Wyoming Indian.
Preseason top five: 1. Shoshoni; 2. Pine Bluffs; 3. Rocky Mountain; 4. Wind River; 5. Lingle.
Way-too-early title game score prediction
Shoshoni 32, Pine Bluffs 28. Honestly, though, no one can say for sure how this will shake out. Any of the top four are completely capable teams, and whoever wins it all in nine-man this year will have absolutely earned their praise.
Who’s your pick for a winner in what is by all accounts the most competitive year of nine-man football since its return in 2020? Which of the top four will it be, or is there a spoiler no one’s thinking of? Leave a comment, or drop a line on Twitter or Facebook.
Next Thursday: Class 2A.